Martin Diller tried to explain the derivation of Man in Space by drawing a Venn diagram on a white board. It started with Panda, which formed five years ago when five students from Piedmont High School decided to parlay their school band training into something useful. In 2008 the group traded Raffi Peterson for former bassist Garet Leidy and rechristened itself Dizzy Balloon — mostly at the behest of a more-famous Mexican pop band also named Panda. By 2010, its members had been in the game long enough to start a side project.
Diller drew blue arrows across the board, connecting Dizzy Balloon to its latest offshoot, Man in Space. This one is decidedly different, he said. It only retains two members from the original band, singer Jonny Flannes and Martin's little brother Louie, who plays keys. Not to mention the sound.
"Dizzy Balloon had a much more like, Beach Boys, Beatles, Queen influence going on," said Martin. "Man in Space is more of, like, Talking Heads."
"Yeah," said guitarist Jules Leyhe. "Man in Space is like, David Byrne and Brian Wilson had a baby. It's kinda weird like that."
"Yeah, sure," said Louie, hesitantly.
The band members, sans Jonny, had all convened in the small 3rd Street practice pad they rented for the summer. They planned to load their gear out later that afternoon, hold a short jam session at the Dillers' house in Piedmont, and get ready to part ways the following week, when everyone went back to college. At one point, the guys had tried to make it as full-time musicians, but Louie said there were too many uncertainties. "We all come from pretty academic families," he said, letting his voice fall sheepishly on the word "academic." Pressure from parents combined with other stumbling blocks. Major labels were coy, the band's revenue stream was unreliable, and the sweat equity they put in didn't always pay dividends. The guys decided to go back to college.
But they haven't given up yet. In fact, Man in Space might be the most promising venture to come from the Panda cabal. Like many current pop bands, they've found artful ways to mix live instrumentation with processed sounds. Their song "Exposition" has the chant-chant, clap-clap form popularized by Queen (hence the nod), lofted by a lot of indecipherable machine sounds. At a glance, there's a bell that sounds a bit like a spoon clinking a glass, a tooting synthesizer, a kick drum, a bass blurred out by feedback, something that burbles and farts. I can show you the way! sings Jonny, in nyah-nyah playground cadence. Rusty is my bag o' bones, the chorus responds. And so it proceeds, for three minutes and two intoxicating seconds.
Jonny and Raffi split vocal duties on the group's new self-titled EP, and they achieve tonal sonority, despite singing in two different registers. Jonny is the more high-pitched of the two. His voice cracks a little, and he has to modulate it for some of the alto parts. ("A lot of people think he sounds like a girl," said Louie. "I hope it's just angelic.") Raffi is more of a tenor, with a lilt of sarcasm that's hard to shake. You can't tell if he's entirely serious, singing the cloying lyrics of "Home Sweet Home": Love sweet love it whispers all the time/I'll listen for the brass of love.
It's entirely earnest, Louie assured. "Most of the writing on the EP comes from Raffi or Jonny's brain." He said Raffi handled most of the production, including all of those weird drum patches on "Exposition" — most of which came from a software program called Logic Studio 7. Formerly a mechanical engineering student at MIT, Raffi took a two-year leave of absence to build high-end guitars for Oakland company Ervin Somogyi. He switched to the music department at Columbia University this year. In Man in Space, he serves alternately as both a technician and an aesthete. He steered the band away from boisterous rock sounds of Dizzy Balloon and toward a more polished, pop-savvy sensibility. You can tell both groups spawned from the same brain, but Man in Space is the more advanced incarnation. The new group retains all its old clap-clappy call-and-response sounds, but it also has soft, dreamy ballads like "Memoir." It's the sound of five rockers who mellowed out with age.
Raffi isn't the only band member who came of age in the years between high school concert band and the current EP. Jules studies music therapy and performance at Berklee School of Music, and says he's done everything from Jeff Beck lab to improvisation classes. "Not the whole gamut," he clarified, "but whole lot of — the gamut." Martin is pursuing a masters degree in jazz studies at California Institute of the Arts. Louie is doing a jazz studies minor at George Washington University, where he majors in international affairs.
No surprise, then, that Raffi describes Man in Space as "the summation of the outlet of collective ideas." The guys wrote some of these songs — or scraps of songs — three years ago, under the auspices of Panda. They spent most of their high school careers learning about show biz and cultivating a fan base. They posed for photo shoots in front of the school lockers and suffered patronizing comments from well-meaning adults. (Panda was pretty cute, after all.) In college, they learned to really play their instruments. They started working with machines. They tempered beach-rock nostalgia with electro beats and studio effects, which made the Man in Space EP sound more contemporary than its antecedents.
Apparently, it worked. The group played its EP release party for a sold-out crowd at Bottom of the Hill, Louie reported. The band garnered enthusiastic comments on Facebook, after posting its six current tracks. For now, Man in Space is just a side project with a complex genetic pedigree. It's second to college and Dizzy Balloon. But that could change. "We'll see," Louie said. "It's definitely looking like a main priority for me, Raffi, and Jonny. ... Dizzy Balloon didn't hit a wall, but in terms of creating stuff, Man in Space is more the fun outlet." He added that Man in Space has a more wandering palette, too. It's less traditional, more machine-generated, more open to experimentation. In that sense, the group makes good on its name.